When you work in a job where people regularly send you documents, you’re bound to come across an obscure file format from time to time, that a basic Windows and Office setup won’t open. Thankfully, by installing a few free apps, you should be able to open almost all files to view them, from which you should be able to print them or save them in a less obscure format.
I’m going to go through applications for both Windows and Mac OS X in this article, but some of the applications are cross-platform and thus available on Linux and other operating systems.
Obscure archive formats
Windows and Mac OS X have long supported the opening of Zip files without the need for any extra software, and OS X will also natively open some Unix formats like GZip and BZip2. But neither supports that RAR format which you may encounter from time to time.
Mac users can download The Unarchiver which decompresses a wide variety of archive formats – RAR included. In my mind, it’s actually better than OS X’s built-in archive support so I use it for all archive formats, not just the less-used ones. It’s free, open source and can be installed either from the Mac App Store or as direct download.
On Windows, I’d recommend 7-Zip, which opens most archive formats (although not quite as many as The Unarchiver). It also lets you create Zip files with a better compression ratio that Windows itself, and has a relatively light and simple interface. Again, it’s free.
If 7-Zip still can’t open an archive, such as the now very rare StuffIt format, try ExtractNow, which is also free.
Opening PDF files
Windows 7 still ships without the native ability to open PDF files (probably due to anti-trust fears) so you’ll almost certainly need an app capable of opening PDF files. Adobe Reader is the obvious choice – it’s free and should open every PDF file without problems, and recent versions haven’t been the bloated mess that plagued older versions. But it’s not the only choice – Sumatra PDF are FoxIt Reader are also worth looking into. And you can install a PDF reader extension for Firefox.
Mac users get Preview included, and this generally works fine – there’s no need to install a third-party PDF reader.
Microsoft Office will open most file formats, provided you have the right component application. If it doesn’t, or you have the more restrictive Home and Student edition, look into LibreOffice which opens a dizzying array of file formats. This includes rarities like files from Microsoft Works, Lotus WordPro and Microsoft Pocket Word. It’s available for both Mac and Windows.
Again, Windows and Mac OS X do ship with file viewers that handle the common image formats and 99.9% of the time these will do fine. But I always have a copy of IrfanView on Windows for everything else – PhotoShop files and FlashPix images, for example. Make sure you install the IrfanView Plugins package alongside the main program to unlock all of its features – both are free.
I haven’t found anything comparable for the Mac yet, but would appreciate suggestions.
Video and audio files
VLC will generally play anything that you can throw at it, it runs on both Mac and Windows, and there’s no messing around with installing codecs. This is probably your best option if Windows Media Player or QuickTime can’t handle a file.
If you do want to try installing codecs, then on Windows you could try the Combined Community Codec Pack (CCCP). Uninstall any existing codec packs, and then run the CCCP Insurgent tool to remove any lingering traces, then install CCCP. This should allow Windows Media Player, or the bundled Media Player Classic, to play all but the most obscure video and audio file formats.